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Chris Killip and The Last Ships

Was sad to read that the British documentary photographer Chris Killip passed today after losing his battle with lung cancer. My own encounter with his work came in 2019 when Debbie and I booked a mini break in the Northern seaside town of Tynemouth. After a couple of days exploring the coast and experiencing what one restaurant described as “Northern Tapas” (like tapas, only deep fried), we took the train into Newcastle to visit the famous Laing Gallery on New Bridge Street. I can’t pretend to have any kind of expertise in these things, and my heart did sink when we discovered that the main summer exhibit was essentially a celebration of the aristocracy, with room after room lined with paintings celebrating the overprivileged enjoying lavish meals, hunting with dogs, dancing, and all while cultivating a look of austere and superiority. All of this reached a dreary climax with a display dedicated to the various etchings of Queen Victoria, who despite having been tutored by some of the nation’s most celebrated watercolourists didn’t seem to have to any great talent.

Leaving the narcissistic daubs of the leisure classes in our wake, we wended our way up the higher levels where the subject shifted to social commentary of a different kind. Central to this was the last display, a brightly illuminated room with views across the industrial rooftops of Newcastle devoted to Killip’s remarkable Wallsend sequence. Amongst these, “The Last Ships” was a staggering achievement, featuring the brutal lines of shoulder-to-shoulder tenements that once stood to silent attention beside the Tyne shipyards, where the great hulks of ships nosed their way through the morning fog as children play in the streets below. The prints had been enlarged to imposing dimensions, some of them covering entire walls which gave the impression that should you wish to, you could step through into the frame.

A small notice informed us that this community and its buildings had been demolished, recalling similar notices that we had seen dotted around the city as we traced its medieval lineage. I’d been carrying my 1960s Mamiya C330 twin lens camera around with me all day, and I felt moved to be stood in the presence of a master photographer, quietly envious of his skill and the raw, unblinking humanity he had captured. His photo books “Seacoal” and “In Flagrante” are similarly moving visual headbutts, documenting working lives in the bitter Northern reaches. There is a mesmeric rawness to his black and white images, many of them captured on 4x5 large format film and glass plates. This traditional analogue/mechanical photography is perfectly suited to the subject, when to me at least digital would seem somehow thin and inappropriate.

If you can find them, his books now command high prices, and I live in hope that I’ll one day find one amongst the National Geographics and Ordinance Survey guides in the local charity shop. In an interview the Los Angeles Times, Killip says of his working class subjects, “They are at the tough end of things, the people in my photographs. It’s about the struggle for work, being out of work, fighting for work,” a statement that carries within it a renewed sense of relevance as redundancy and unemployment stalk these lands in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

There’s joy there too, in the smiling faces of children making their games beside the industrial fallout of the Thatcher years. “People were not despairing,” he says of a series shot in Lynemouth and home of the sea-coalers, pre-empting the usual gawping impulse to view the lives of poor people as unequivocally tragic and devoid of warmth. He describes it a “tough place, but it wasn’t an unhappy one”, explaining how the community had this profound sense of purpose – harvesting and selling the seacoal – which left me to wonder how difficult it might be to find such in England today.

Poverty without purpose is a cruel existence, although such a statement could be accused of the same clumsy sentimental reductionism that I find so questionable in others. Portrayals of working people often fall into this trap, either posing them as tragic leftovers or cultural aberrations with unexpected or ironically uncharacteristic talent for ballet dancing or male striptease. Painting them as one dimensional, unsophisticated Neanderthals with a heart of gold, or hard-as-iron survivalists and petty criminals merely perpetuates a condescending cliché that pays no heed to the rich cultural contributions of working people. I like Killip’s photographs precisely because they always seem to contain something that contradicts these simplistic readings and leaves you to ponder where the line can be drawn between reportage and performance.

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